It might seem a funny time of year to be talking about preserving sweet peppers, but it’s been such a strange season. My plants (Spanish Pequillo) gave up what will probably be their last major crop for the season only last week. Even now the odd fruit continues to ripen. I’m guessing others in the north will be seeing similar backyard oddities this year.
I hardly ever eat any of my peppers fresh, mostly because the variety I grow have very tough skins, but also because I think they just taste better preserved. It’s a bit like the difference between milk and cheese I guess. But I don’t mean just any method of preservation. Vinegar is brutish stuff and obliterates the complexity and finesse of a good pepper. Drying is fine if you plan to use your peppers in soups, stews, stocks or ground into homemade paprika, but the very best way, with the most versatile results, is strangely little-known and rarely practised in these parts. Effectively just a stripped back version of the water bath method, it has been used around the shores of Mediterranean for hundreds of years. It can be used to preserve many other fruits and vegetables (and even tuna!).
In the case of peppers, the process starts off in a very primal way, with the cleansing lick of the flame. Pepper skins are literally indigestible to humans and pretty unpalatable too. The only practical way to be rid of them is by chargrilling.
This can be done under the grill of an electric oven or directly over the flame of a gas BBQ, but for the best results you need the subtle seasoning of wood smoke. There is no need to get an actual pyre going in your backyard – this is probably illegal where you live anyway and takes forever to get going anyway. My preferred short cut is to drop down the grill on my gas BBQ until the flames are licking through, and then make a small pile of twigs (grape and fruit tree prunings work really well) ontop. Lay the peppers (whole unless you want to save the seeds) on the twigs, and keep turning them until blackened all over. The idea is to scorch the skin not immolate the fruit, so don’t wander off at this point. The twigs will burn down fairly quickly so keep replenishing. As individual peppers are ready, drop them into a waiting plastic bag and cover them up. The steam inside the bag will help loosen the skins later.
Once all your peppers are burnt black and bagged, leave them to sweat it out a bit. About 15 minutes will do.
Next, under a running tap, slip the skins from the peppers – they should come away very easily – and pull out the core. Rinse away any loose seeds or flecks of burnt skin. Now firmly pack the peppers into preserving jars with sealable metal lids, and top with a few basils leaves and a teaspoon of salt to each cup volume of peppers. Seal the lids very tightly. Wrap each jar in either newspaper or a tea towel (this prevents breakages), and submerge in a large pot of water. Bring the water to the boil and continue to boil for 20 minutes. Remove pot from heat and allow to cool.
Once cool, carefully unwrap each jar, dry and briefly invert to ensure there is no leakage.
The peppers will have lost volume and will not be fully submerged in the pepper syrup that has formed. This is quite normal. Don’t worry. Until opened, the peppers will remain completely safe and sterile.
These peppers can be used immediately but improve with age. They keep unopened for at least a few years and probably much longer.
I use my preserved pepper on pizza, tossed through pasta, in salads, on toast, crackers, pretty much anywhere and at anytime. They are my most treasured pantry item and I’m very loathe to share them.